What's next for Qatar talks on longer Gaza truce?

Efforts under way to reach a permanent ceasefire as talks continue on prisoner swap and foundations of enclave's future

Left to right: CIA director William Burns, Mossad chief David Barnea, Egyptian General Intelligence Directorate chief Abbas Kamel, Qatar Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani. AFP, Getty Images
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US, Israeli and Egyptian intelligence chiefs and Qatar's prime minister are negotiating the basis of a permanent ceasefire in Gaza as a step towards agreeing to a comprehensive settlement of the Israel-Hamas conflict, officials told The National.

CIA director William Burns, Mossad chief David Barnea, Egyptian General Intelligence Directorate chief Abbas Kamel and Qatar Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani are expected to continue talks until an agreement is reached, officials said.

The four, along with their top aides, met in Doha on Tuesday, the second such meeting in the Qatari capital since November 9.

“It's a step-by-step process that will tackle the entire issue in phases,” said one of the officials who receive regular, in-depth briefings on the negotiations.

“The present and future phases are much more delicate and that's reflected in the high level of representation in Doha.”

Indirectly involved in the negotiations are Hamas chiefs based in Doha, including its leader Ismail Haniyeh, the officials said.

The Doha meetings are designed to build on the four-day truce between Israel and Hamas that went into force on Friday and was extended for two days.

The truce, which involved the release of scores of Hamas-held hostages from Gaza and Palestinian women and children jailed in Israel, was likely to be extended again overnight on Wednesday, according to the officials.

What is being discussed?

The officials said the deliberations in Doha are multi-tiered. One track is focused on short-term issues related to the current war in Gaza, while another considers the longer-term future of the densely populated enclave and the wider, 75-year-old Palestinian question.

They said top of the list in the discussions is the release of civilian hostages still held by Hamas.

Next could come male Israeli hostages and finally Israeli military members captured on October 7, whose number is unknown but is thought to include female soldiers and a handful of high-ranking officers, the officials said.

Hamas wants the release of all Palestinians in Israeli jails in exchange for the military personnel it is holding. Thousands of Palestinians, including several senior and mid-ranking commanders of Hamas's military wing, are being held by Israel.

The deliberations in Doha are also looking at the future of Gaza and the West Bank, where at least 200 Palestinians have been killed since October 7, the officials said.

They want to find a formula to stop religious sites in the West Bank from being a trigger of violent unrest involving Jews and Muslims as well as a resolution of the issue of expanding Jewish settlements in the West Bank, considered the largest obstacle to the creation of an independent Palestinian state.

As for Gaza, the negotiators are looking at the possible deployment of a UN-led Arab peacekeeping force in the Strip, with Egypt and Jordan, signatories of peace treaties with Israel in 1979 and 1994, respectively, given key roles.

Also under discussion is the reconstruction of Gaza – with energy-rich Qatar leading a multinational effort that would attract funds from other Arab countries and the West – and the question of exploiting natural gas reserves discovered off the territory's Mediterranean coast, estimated at about 1.4 trillion cubic metres, for the benefit of Gaza.

A long-delayed presidential election to replace the deeply unpopular and ailing Mahmoud Abbas, 88, and a new parliament, is also being discussed. Israel has publicly stated its opposition to Mr Abbas's Palestinian Authority taking over the governance of Gaza.

The PA was violently thrown out of Gaza by Hamas in 2007, allowing the militant group to rule the enclave alone since then and prompting Israel and Egypt to blockade the territory.

Egypt later cultivated a working relationship with Hamas, mediating between it and Israel to end past bouts of fighting.

What could hold up an agreement?

The truce that came into effect on Friday also allowed aid to reach Gaza, battered by relentless Israeli bombardment that has killed nearly 15,000 people. The onslaught was in response to Hamas's deadly rampage in southern Israel on October 7 that killed about 1,200 people, mostly civilians. The militants also took about 240 hostages.

But the Egyptian officials cautioned that building on the truce is fraught with major obstacles and could be derailed.

Israel and Hamas have fought four wars since 2008.

Officials said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's insistence on annihilating the Iran-backed Hamas was a major obstacle in the negotiations.

Another is the hardline ideology of Hamas's military wing, the Ezedeen Al Qassam Brigades, which views Israel as an arch-enemy, the officials said.

Mr Netanyahu has said Israel intends to maintain a military presence in Gaza after its military operation, a proposition already rejected by the US.

But participants at of the Doha meetings are motivated by fears of a broader conflict that draws Iran's other proxies into a full-fledged regional war that would destabilise the Middle East, bolster Iran's already considerable regional leverage and harm western interests.

Updated: November 30, 2023, 8:33 AM